Which trait most accounts for the spectacular career of Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic’s race blogger–turned–intellectual superstar?
Coates, widely assumed to be America’s foremost public thinker, has published yet another best-seller: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. In his new $28 book, Coates reprints his old magazine articles that The Atlantic had given away for free, sandwiched between what he enticingly labels “extended blog posts” about what kind of mood he was in when he wrote each article.
A couple of years ago, Coates was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant of $625,000 for his best-selling micro-memoir Between the World and Me, in which he recounted not just one but two anecdotes about people he knew who were the victims of white racist oppression.
In one, a black guy whom Coates had vaguely known in college was gunned down by a policeman.
Eventually, Coates admits the shooter cop was black too, which you might think wrecks the moral of his tale. But that’s not the point; the point is that, no matter what blacks inflict upon one another, white people are to blame.
And that’s not all Coates could remember from his first forty years of life. His memoir also included the celebrated story of how Coates let his little boy dawdle upon an escalator and then a white woman about to crash into the lad said, “Come on,” which is racist.
These two thrilling yarns have rocketed Coates to near the top of the college speaker circuit, where he makes up to $1,000 per minute on the nights when he can’t think of enough to say about White Supremacy to fulfill his contractual minimum speech length of 75 minutes.
What exactly is the secret of Ta-Nehisi’s success? Why has he vaulted over more talented black intellectuals such as John McWhorter and Thomas Chatterton Williams (who have both been unloading on Coates lately)?
It’s definitely not his erudition. McWhorter scoffed recently:
The elevation of that dorm-lounge performance art as serious thought is a kind of soft bigotry, which is as nauseating as it is unintended.
But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.
Coates grew up physically scared of other blacks, which is one reason he has so few interesting stories from his 42 years of life: He didn’t go out much.
So what has made this rather pathetic person so immensely popular with whites?
The secret behind Coates’ appeal to white liberals is that he’s not very smart. He’s not likely to bring up awkward facts that don’t fit The Narrative. Why not? Because he can’t remember them.
Coates’ lifelong worries about his lack of mental retentiveness are a recurrent theme in We Were Eight Years in Power:
…the classroom had always been the site of my most indelible failures and losses…. I wondered then if something was wrong with me, if there was some sort of brain damage…. And like almost every other lesson administered to me in a classroom, I don’t remember a single thing said that day.
Coates sums up:
I’d felt like a failure all of my life—stumbling out of middle school, kicked out of high school, dropping out of college.
His failure to graduate from Howard U. ate away at him for most of the next decade:
…my chief identity, to my mind, was not writer but college dropout…
Fortunately, a loyal girlfriend supported him into his 30s as he failed in various ill-paid journalism jobs:
Kenyatta and I had been together for nine years, and during that time I had never been able to consistently contribute a significant income.
Kenyatta believed in him as a writer, despite his deficiencies of style and substance:
And so I derived great meaning from the work of writing. But I could not pay the rent with “great meaning.” I could not buy groceries with “great meaning.” With “great meaning” I overdrew accounts. With “great meaning” I burned through credits cards and summoned the IRS.
Coates has a hard time remembering much besides his feelings. For example, the last three words of his account of a seventh-grade trip to Gettysburg reveal a repeated theme in Coates’ rise to best-selling memoirist:
Given this near-totemic reverence for black history, my trip to Gettysburg…should cut like a lighthouse beam across the sea of memory. But when I look back on those years…all is fog.
This is not to say that Coates’ memory is worse than average, just that as a professional memoirist he’s not exactly Vladimir Nabokov penning Speak, Memory. Moreover, Coates doesn’t remember much of what has been in the news in recent decades, which is a little odd for a journalist.